Makoko Island was first established by migrants who moved from various parts of Nigeria and Lagos State to the burgeoning city of Lagos when it was still the capital of Nigeria and one of the fastest growing cities in the world. They were soon joined by fisher folk from Benin, Togo and Ghana who have settled in many of the creeks and islands along the entire coast of West and Central Africa. Today, Makoko has a population of over 100,000 although it is difficult to know because enumerators completely avoided the area during the 2006 census. Did they do this because the governments (national and state) consider that most of the inhabitants of Makoko are foreigners and therefore not their problem? No official reason was given for this decision. 

Morning traffic jam in Makoko. Photo: Roland Ngam

Makoko derives its name from the Akoko leaf. In the 19th century, the entire area on which the community sits today was covered with Akoko plants. The Akoko plant is very important to the Yoruba. They believe that the plant is a reproductive tonic that can boost fertility if consumed regularly by expecting couples. The plant is also used during the coronation of Obas (Kings) to confer blessings, protection and long life on the new Oba.

Half of Makoko is situated on land. The other half is built on water. The houses stand on stilt frames. 

Children arrive at school in Makoko. Photo: Roland Ngam

Makoko Island is a hive of activity on any given day. Makokoans have adapted to life on water and surrounded themselves with all the amenities required to live a self-sufficient life. The main activity of the area is fishing. The men venture far beyond the lagoon on large canoes and catch fish, which they either hand over to their wives or sell on to middle-women and men. The women and men either supply the fish fresh to local markets or they smoke it. 

A woman buys firewood. Makokoans use a lot of firewood to prepare 'Smoked fish'. Photo: Roland Ngam

Smoking fish occupies most of the women in Makoko. During the day, one can see the smoke slowly rising from dedicated huts where the fish has been carefully packed and then all the doors and windows closed to dehydrate the fish. The smoked fish ends up in the vegetable soup and tomato stew that is consumed all over Nigeria.  

Many activities have popped up to cater to the need of the fishermen who bring in the fish and the women who prepare it for the markets. There are ambulant canoes selling cooked food like Moi Moi, Akara, Amala, rice and stew, etc. There are canoes resupplying homes with firewood. There are convenient stores selling everything from beer to solar lamps. There are also canoes supplying homes with water. All the fresh water consumed in Makoko comes either from boreholes or taps on the mainland. 

Women selling food at a school yard. Photo: Roland Ngam

We caught up with a Vivian, a smoked fish trader, to find out what life was like on Makoko. 

“I really love it here. I would not live anywhere else in the world. My husband brings in fish that I smoke and sell it for a good profit. From this business, we can take care of our families. We have everything that we need here. There are schools for the children, there are stores - everything”. 

Vivian answers Ibrahima Thiam's question while HOMEF's Stephen Oduware records. Photo: Roland Ngam

She added that there was however one major problem: 

“We are also Nigerians but the government wants to push us out of this place. This is our home and we are going to fight to stay here”. 

Nearby, there is a big school and there are children playing in the yard, oblivious to all the politics concerning their community. Most of the amenities in Makoko – water, electricity, schools – was set up by Makokoans. A number of foreign development agencies have also helped to build or improve schools in the area. 

The one big challenge that Makoko has not got right is waste disposal. There is a lot of plastic waste on the water. The lack of a plan to deal with waste is not unique to Makoko. It is something that is ever-present in many African cities where government has failed and the prevailing sentiment in the community is: let nature deal with it. Nature does not deal very well with plastic unfortunately. 

Smoke billowing out of a hut where smoked fish is being prepared. Photo: Roland Ngam

Many children in Makoko, and even their parents for that matter, do not have a birth certificate. For Nigerians who have circumstantial proof of their family origins, there is a sense that they can get ‘regularised’ whenever they want. However, for Makokoans whose parents migrated from neighbouring countries, they are considered stateless and nothing is being done to give them an official status so that they can enjoy things like more schools, hospitals, waste disposal services, etc. 

It is perhaps the consideration that Makokoans are squatters that gives the Lagos government encouragement to try to evict the community. The former governor Fashola evicted over 3000 families. Now, there is talk of all of Makoko disappearing. The Lagos Government has a big plan to set up a smart city in the area. 

HOMEF's Stephen Oduware points out the area where the Lagos State Government plans to build a smart city to Rosa luxemburg's Ibrahima Thiam. Photo: Roland Ngam

The Memorandum of Understanding for the Lagos Smart City was signed in 2016 by Lagos State Attorney-General Adeniji Kazeem and Smart City Dubai’s Jabber bin Hafez. The idea behind the concept is to create a hub of technology, governance and knowledge-based communities. At the time the deal was signed, Governor Ambode hoped that the Smart City initiative would create thousands of jobs. He added that the collaboration was part of a larger vision to make Lagos safer, cleaner and more prosperous. 

There was very little consideration for Makoko in the deal. The livelihoods of the hundred thousand inhabitants of Makoko was not considered. The role that they play in supplying Lagos with protein and other seafood did not matter. Makokoans do not have land titles and long-term customary tenure is something that many governments conveniently ignore when it suits them. 

While plans for the smart city initiative continue in faraway offices, life continues above and below the Third Mainland Bridge. Photo: Roland Ngam

But Makokoans have vowed that they are not going to go down without a fight. Too often, the socioeconomic potential of informal settlements is ignored – but, a better smart city strategy would be one that integrates Makoko into the development plans drawn up by Lagos State.